Tidying Toys with Children

The greatest gift you can give to your children are the roots of responsibility
and the wings of independence. – Denis Waitley

One of the biggest complaints I receive from parents is how their kids’ stuff has taken over their homes. And when it comes to clean up time, children often whine about there being too many things to put away! So how do we handle this endless battle?

First of all, we need to take responsibility and look at our own parenting styles. The two major types are Authoritarian and Permissive. Each one creates different problems when trying to get our children to clean up. If you are an authoritarian parent, you may have tried to threaten your children to clean up or you’ll throw their toys away. This results in having frustrated and angry children and probably yourself too. If you are a permissive parent letting the children figure it out without guidance or do the clean up for them, you end up feeling burnt out and resentful.

Children need routine, boundaries, predictability, and structure to thrive. That’s why they behave differently when they are at school. So how do we bring that same practice into our homes?

From my experience as a professional organizer, a certified parenting instructor, and a mom of 2 young boys, I have some insights and tips that I hope will help you to teach your children the life skill of tidying.


Let’s first understand the problems and the bad habits or values we are teaching our children:

1. Too much coming in
On average, every child of school age will receive 18-25 gifts at their birthday party. You add that to the holiday gifts from relatives, souvenirs, party favors, toys as rewards, and you may end up with as many as 30-50 more toys EACH YEAR PER CHILD. Yikes!

2. Not enough going out
It’s hard to let go of toys. Families save them for the siblings while continuing to acquire new ones. It’s hard too for the grown-ups to let go also because of how much money was spent, or how much trouble it was to find that “must-have” toys.

Certain toys have sentimental values, although only a rare few are truly special.  Most items are kept out of guilt because they were gifts from family members. The fear of not wanting to upset our children (or the gift-givers) if we want to downsize their collection have created some sneaky parents too.

3. Items that encourages poor values
Many toys with loud noises and flashing lights are designed to attract attention, but most don’t allow for deeper, more imaginative play. (This is true even for some toys that claim to be educational) As a result, children get bored quickly and want a new toy to ease that desire for stimulation.

“Collect-them-all” type of toy is another example that entices children to believe more is better, newer is better. This is a parent’s nightmare to keep track of every piece, and need to replace the ones that go missing.


Believe it or not, children are quite reasonable if something is explained in a way that they can understand. If all they see is your frustration and anger, then they will do as told only to avoid punishment or fear of upsetting you. Cleaning up becomes about control, and pleasing someone else, which doesn’t really teach them anything about being responsible and independent.

The most effective way to gain cooperation from your children is by being respectful of one another, use creative and playful ways to present the problem, and share the responsibility of coming up with a solution.

Here are some tips to help you:

• Using the KonMari method, start by setting up a special time to declutter with your children when they are well rested and fed. To add some fun factor for the younger children, you can assign them job titles such as a manager or interior decorator. You may even have them put on an apron or hard hat to get into character.  Also, take a before photo of the clutter so you can reflect on it afterward.

• Offer an experience or fun activity as motivation to getting the job done. Make sure you never offer sweet treats or more toys. Quality time and creating fun memories and closeness is always the best reward. Try giving them a coupon for extra 15 minutes of playtime with them, or watch their favorite show together.

• Set goals with your children so they are aware of the expectations. Show them the problem (too many toys to fit in the container or shelf, the mess covered surfaces are unusable and the items get lost or stepped on). Allow your children make their own observations so they see the effects of the mess.

Next, ask them to envision a cleaned up space, where they can play with their favorite toys and games. Let them use their imagination and come up with ways to use the space to have even more fun.

• Provide your answer to the problem using the KonMari method by saying: “This is what I was thinking…let’s keep only what makes you really really happy, then give those toys a comfortable home to live in (box or a shelf) when not being played with. Your toys will “take a break” until you are ready to play with them again.” Then ask your children for their input if they have any other ideas. Work together to come up with a reasonable solution that you can all agree on, then execute the plan.

• If your children can’t decide or have trouble letting go because suddenly everything is their favorite, remind them of the problem and the vision again. Ask them to think hard about which ones they really can’t part with. Or imagine how the unplayed items feel when they don’t get a turn to be played with. Explain that donating them will give the items another life to be loved and used.

• Any toys that are not chosen to be kept, damaged, or have missing parts should be thanked for the joy they brought, and properly recycled or discarded (see below for Happen’s Toy Lab that will give broken toys a new life). Any toys that can be given to a friend, make sure you do it ASAP and allow your child to do the giving.

• When the work is done. Praise your child’s specific action. Find out what they are most proud of. Ask them how they feel in their cleaned up space. Take an after photo and compare it to the before photo. The visual will help them see what they have accomplished, also remind them of the experience.

Additional tips:

• Use a weekly chore chart to establish good clean up habits. Continue to only reward with quality time together.

• Don’t rush to replace lost toys. It’s a learning opportunity to talk to your child about responsibilities and dealing with loss. Kids are very resilient and with your love and support, they can get over anything.

• To limit what comes into your home in the future, ask family members to purchase lessons or membership to museums and zoos as gifts. For birthday parties, either ask guests to not bring a present, or donate to a children’s organization, museum, or animal sanctuary that you can visit with your child. Give them experiences and memories that they can carry everywhere, share freely, and remember how much they are loved.


Here are some feel-good organizations that will give gently used toys and clothing a new purpose:

Happen’s Toy Lab is a one-of-a-kind, wacky laboratory where kids and adults can create their own toys using their minds and imaginations along with our collection of recycled toy parts all of which were donated by the community.

SAFE provides comfort to children in traumatic or emergency situations through donations of stuffed animals, blankets, books, children’s clothes, and baby items.

There’s, of course, the Goodwill and Salvation Army. However, I prefer to check with your local shelter and crisis centers first.


As parents, our job is to teach our children to be responsible, respectful, adaptable, empathetic, and socially responsible. Let’s switch our perspective on our children’s clutter and offer them the opportunity to practice these life skills through tidying.


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